Fay Wray will always be remembered as the shrieking, blond Beauty who "killed" the Beast in King Kong (1933), which is a mixed blessing. Without
the classic monster movie, Wray's
career might be forgotten today.
On the other hand (a phrase she used as the title
of her 1989 autobiography), her Kong
notoriety overshadows her fine work in
Erich von Stroheim's
The Wedding March.
She was born in Alberta, Canada, on September 15, 1907. Her mother, Vina Jones,
eloped with lover Joseph Wray. But eventually he abandoned
them and Fay was sent to live with a friend of the family
in Los Angeles at the age of 14, studying at Hollywood High School,
because the Californian sea and sun were thought to be good for her frail health.
Her pretty blonde looks soon got her noticed by filmmakers and by age 16 Wray was
working in low-budget movies. She appeared in Hal Roach
comedy shorts and was leading lady to Western stars Hoot Gibson
(in 1923's The Man in the Saddle and Art Acord
(in 1926's Lazy Lightning but was largely dissatisfied with her screen work until she was
signed by producer Pat Powers
for The Wedding March in 1926, during which she had to fend off the
sexual advances of director Erich von Strohelm.
Von Stroheim's production went over schedule and over budget, and
Powers sold the picture-and Wray's contract-to Paramount.
Even in its truncated form, The Wedding March (finally released
in 1928) was a masterful film that showcased Wray's virginal
beauty. Paramount's The Street of Sin (1927) offered Wray an
opportunity to work with German star Emil Jannings and
Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. She appeared in The
Legion of the Condemned (1927) with
Gary Cooper for
director William Wellman, and also co-starred in
Sternberg's first talkie, Thunderbolt (1929).
The Four Feathers (1929) was an odd hybrid
production that combined semi-documentary footage
directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack
with studio footage helmed by German
émigré Lothar Mendes, but it gave
Wray her first opportunity to work with
the team that would create King Kong
When she joined the cast of Kong the protracted schedule allowed
her to work on several other movies concurrently, especially
thrillers and horror films, including a pair of Technicolor thrillers,
Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum plus
The Vampire Bat (both 1933), and particularly
The Most Dangerous Game (1932), which was directed by
Schoedsack (with actor Irving Pichel) and shot on the
Kong jungle sets at night.
Other films from this period include Dirigible, The Unholy Garden (both 1930),
One Sunday Afternoon and The Bowery (both 1933).
It was the roles in the above mentioned horror films Doctor X and The Vampire Bat
that revealed that Wray had a fine pair of lungs and she became known as the Queen of Scream.
This suited her perfectly for King Kong in which, she was told, she would be cast
opposite a tall, dark leading man. 'king Kong director
Merain C. Cooper called me into his office and showed me sketches of jungle scenes and said:
"You're going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood," she recalled.
'Naturally, I thought of Clark Cable. But then he showed me
a sketch of a giant ape on the Empire State Building. He said:
"There's your leading man."'
King Kong finally reached the screen in 1933. Thereafter,
she acted in prestige pictures
such as Affairs of Cellini, Viva Villa!, The Richest Girl in the World
and The Captain Hates the Sea (all 1934), but those films, as well as
later programmers in which she toiled, did very little for
Divorced from screenwriter John Monk Saunders
in 1939, Wray married screenwriter Robert Riskin
in 1942 and retired from the screen. In the
1950s she returned to character parts
in The Cobweb, Queen Bee
(both 1955), Rock, Pretty Baby (1956),
Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and her last feature,
Dragstrip Riot (1958).
Her autobiography, On the Other Hand (1989) reveals that
Wray had a life much more interesting than the characters she played.
When she died in August 2004, aged 96, the lights of the Empire
State Building, the skyscraper she helped immortalise, were dimmed for 15 minutes.
The director Peter Jackson
was particularly saddened by Fay Wray's passing.
He had hoped to include her in his King Kong Fay would speak the final line:
'It was beauty that killed the beast.'